Q&A: Poler Outdoor Stuff Founder & Designer Benji Wagner
The Portland, Oregon-based tinkerer on the shifting outdoor industry and using social media to connect with adventurers around the world
Many don't know this, but the reigning champion of accessible outdoor gear and apparel started out making hand warmers. That's right, Poler Outdoor Stuff started with the most stuffiest stuff you could imagine. Then came the One Man Tent. And then the Napsack. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, some years later Lena Dunham wore the latter of the two on GIRLS and the rest is history. Except, by then, Poler was already a household name to those in the action sport and peripheral outdoor worlds.
Founded in 2010 Poler makes outdoor gear, apparel and other trinkets for the weekend warrior, couch surfer, regular surfer, regular guy, regular gal, etc. Poler doesn't make gear for summiting Himalayan peaks or thru-hiking the PCT. Poler makes stuff for everyday folks looking to enhance their experience in the outdoors, every day, whether that looks like riding your bicycle through town or enjoying a day at the beach with a couple pals. The brand understands we don't all have time (or the ambition) to bag Everest or even spend multiple days in the wilderness without showering.
But before we ramble on for too long, we'll let Poler Co-Founder and Creative Director Benji Wagner tell the story himself.
Let's start near the beginning. What spurred the idea to start Poler?
Really, I felt that the industry had become over the last generation really focused on technical innovation, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that—Poler is definitely not anti-technical—but as a consumer, I just didn’t feel that inspired by a lot of that stuff. And I felt that for most people, how they relate to the outdoors had kind of shifted since that industry was founded, which was on mountaineering. And reality is, most of us aren’t mountaineers. Even if mountaineering is awesome, it’s just not something that most people really do. It’s something they may aspire to from afar, but most people connect with the outdoors maybe by going to the beach with the family on the weekend, or you know, riding around town on a bicycle with their friends—the simple things.
So that was really the foundational kind of message of Poler and a big reason why I started the company, to kind of connect with a younger group of people that already know that. It’s not something that I had to preach to people. It’s something that I think was already there culturally, but brands and the industry in general weren’t really speaking to that.
So we’re really focused on trying to make good product and some innovative product, but also really connect with people emotionally, and inspire them, and connect with them culturally. That’s where I really felt there was a kind of a hole in the [outdoor] world.
It seems the current generation coming up understands that you don’t have to define yourself by a single activity or a single interest. To them it’s just a lifestyle.
I’ve definitely thought a lot about the topic. And my reference for this is music. I think if you go back in time, people really identified with a single genre—they liked rock and roll or they liked hip hop or you know, electronic or whatever. It was very segmented. In the ‘90s, if you were super passionate about hip hop, that was probably your main focus musically.
And now, because of the internet, it’s just really mixed everything up. So if you look at a mix tape of your average young person—or even an older person—they probably have a bit of everything. They probably have some pop, hip hop, rock and roll, folk, whatever. And that’s totally awesome and a great thing, I think.
That’s really what Poler is trying to do in the outdoor space—merge all these different cultures in a real way so it feels more like a mix tape that’s not just thrown together but still has like a uniform feeling that people can get psyched on.
There are over 600,000 photos on IG tagged #campvibes rn. There have to be a lot of people out there who think Poler is some giant company, because of its social presence alone.
Yeah, right now Poler has a much larger footprint or halo or whatever you want to call it than we are. We’re still a very small team, I mean, compared to what most people’s perception is. And that’s totally intentional on my part. My feeling is the internet is an equalizer in a lot of ways and you can project something you want to be. And again, that goes back to music. If you come out with an album and you present yourself as someone that is gonna play in the local bar, then you’re setting your own kind of limitation, you know.
And if you present yourself—like when ACDC came out, I don’t think it took long for people to feel like holy shit, ACDC should be playing stadium shows. Like, this band is meant for a big audience and meant to really shake things up.
And without being pretentious, that’s how I approach Poler. To me it’s meant to connect with a lot of people and hopefully inspire them. It wasn’t meant to be this super cool thing that barely anyone new about. It was meant to be something that hopefully is cool, but also… you know, like a Pharrell song where it may not be every super cool person’s favorite, but it connects with a ton of people and gets them psyched. He’s awesome on that level. It very much comes down to intent, I think, regardless of social or anything. It’s just sort of what you're aiming for, you know.
Let’s talk a bit more about social media.
I mean it just, it really depends on intent, again. If you’re following someone who just does selfies and wants to be a super babe or whatever, that’s their intent. That’s why they’re doing Instagram, to get the attention. As for the outdoor space, I think overall it’s amazing. You get to see all these amazing images that you didn’t before [social media existed].
So for Poler, what I’m really focused on is really trying to inspire people to kind of break that barrier down where they’re not just looking at Yosemite on their computer, they’re gonna actually think, "wow, I’m actually gonna go, this is accessible.”
"Most people think that Poler is dominantly for men, but it’s not. For me, it has always been unisex"
Accessible is the key word. I feel more and more people are less interested in the ultra-extravagant rich guy shit, and more into things that they can see themselves doing.
Yeah, that’s how I approach Poler. You know, we do the Adventures storytelling on the website and there is some stuff that is really ambitious and far out there—rafting the Grand Canyon or going to Iceland—that people wouldn’t do every day, but then there’s also a lot of stuff that’s just right out in the backyard, so to speak, and I think there’s a place for both.
I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna get tired of seeing really fancy stuff or really good looking people. That’s probably here to stay no matter what. But there’s also a place for people to just feel like hey, that does look more like me, a normal non-model, and that looks like a beach that I go to. So I think we’re definitely trying as a brand to connect with the normal, everyday type person that still values design, and values cool looking stuff. But yeah, I definitely don’t want—I feel like there’s a lot of brands and a lot of product out there that is so aspirational that it tips over into feeling impossible. It’s like the equivalent of a Ferrari or whatever, like it is pretty cool, but I’m not really going to buy a Ferrari.
Though Poler recently released some higher price point, more technical bags and apparel. Is that a reflection of line diversification or overall band evolution?
A bit of both. I personally really want to make some really premium stuff, but it’s not gonna be something that’s like the core of the brand. I like the idea of having a few things that are really premium that can kind of push the limits, and then having a lot of other stuff that is still functional, but is more affordable. So, I’m gonna definitely be doing that in all categories.
I’m working on a small collection—we’ll have a more technical tent and more technical backpack. We have a down parka that’s a really nice parka that’s like $425. And that’s not for everybody, but it is actually worth that. It’s a very comparable parka to others in that price range. But that’s not gonna take away from the main core of the brand—stuff you can use every day.
When can we expect to see such products hit shelves?
Some stuff, like the jacket, we actually have out now. But for the kind of tents, backpacks and things I’m super pumped on and I’ve been working on for a while, I’m looking at probably this upcoming summer.
You first introduced a women’s specific line a couple years back. How has adding women’s apparel helped Poler evolve as a brand?
Well, for me, [Poler] has always been unisex, and I’ve intentionally wanted to be a unisex brand. Most people think from the outside that it’s dominantly for men, but it’s not. With so much of what we make, I definitely try to be conscious of making it interesting to both sexes, whether it’s the colorways or patterns. We’re not making dresses or things like that, but the backpacks and bags—it’s really for the woman that is active and having fun outside doing stuff, not just fashion. It’s not just about looking cool.
"It’s not just about looking cool."
We did introduce a women’s fit in t-shirts, and in outerwear we have some women’s pieces, because obviously, there’s only so far we can go with a unisex fit on all that stuff. And we have some more women’s stuff coming out in spring that I’m super pumped on. So it’s a big deal to me. I mean, honestly we sell about half and half to men and women on our direct sales, which is great.
Selling to other stores has been challenging. Other stores that carry our product definitely have just sort of seen it as more a men’s line. Regardless of what I pitch to them or what we sell, they just have their perceptions. And it’s hard for me. Sometimes I just don’t understand why they don’t see the kind of connection that we’re making with women… I mean even if you look at our photography, there’s a lot of women involved. But it’s something we’re still working on.
I feel like there are a lot of women out there that are looking for this kind of stuff and doing awesome stuff out in the world, so I want to connect with them. That’s definitely part of the mission for me.
What else will you be focusing on in this new year?
We’re really focusing improving the product, and kind of reinvesting in making new, innovative, better products.
So I think you’ll see with the stuff I’ve already worked on that isn’t out yet—I hope everyone sees it’s just getting better and better. And hopefully it’ll just continue to do so, and we’ll carry on to have some really exciting new lines and stuff coming out.